Driving a race car seemed to be the least of Kurt Busch's worries in 2012. Often, it showed.
Busch wrecked early (at least three race cars required repair after incidents during the season-opening Daytona Speedweeks) and was a participant to incidents often (11 races with incidents in 30 starts) with Phoenix Racing last season. In between, he was desperately trying to repair his image that was tattered when his emotions boiled over in the final race of 2011.
In that scene, Busch unflinchingly berated a waiting ESPN reporter in the Homestead-Miami Speedway garage. A fan recorded the video and posted it online, where today it totals over 1.1 million views. Less than two weeks later, amid pressure from team sponsors, Penske Racing and Busch parted ways—marking the second time Busch left a Sprint Cup race team for matters unrelated to on-track success.
In 2012, while working for Phoenix, Busch's effort at reshaping his image was a mixed bag. He spoke all of the right lines, consistently detailing the "fun" he was having at the "old-school" Phoenix operation. By the end of the season, he shaped a documentary for air on SPEED channel that was a one-sided look at Busch through a "different lens."
The PR campaign needed to be at full swing because the 2004 series champion was still pulling the negativity toward himself. There was the odd Darlington run-in with Ryan Newman's crew, and then a one-race suspension after threatening a reporter at Dover in June. Phoenix Racing nearly dropped him.
But Busch won a Nationwide Series race at Daytona in July and had soon caught the eye of Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser. At the time, Regan Smith was piloting FRR's No. 78 to a season below expectations with just a single top-five and three top-ten finishes. Visser pulled the trigger—a controversial one because of the gulf between the reputations of each driver—and Busch raced the final six races of 2012 for the Colorado-based team.
In the season's final three events, Busch matched Smith's season-to-date results with three top-ten finishes.
Will Kurt Busch win a Sprint Cup race in 2013?
The story has only been more success for the oft-criticized Busch in 2013. Through 11 races, a year-to-year comparison of Busch and Smith show FRR made the right call. A year ago, Smith drove the No. 78 in an average running position of 23rd and raced just 13.6 percent of the laps of first eleven events in the top-15. Meanwhile, Busch's average running position in the same period his season is better by nearly six spots with 60 percent of competed laps coming in the race's top 15 positions.
Busch also dazzled in NASCAR's All-Star Race for FRR. He won two of the race's segments only to finish fifth in the most important final dash after a disappointed pit stop. All told, Busch has stepped up his game for three reasons: he's handling pressure from all corners better, he's letting his true talent shine and he's taking advantage of technical improvements FRR sought in the offseason.
The result has put Busch back on the map of drivers that have a reasonable shot at winning each week.
Learning to handle the pressure
Busch will never be completely level-headed when he's in competition mode. He exhibits the traits of any hardened competitor—just perhaps a bit more publicly than most. There's an upside to that intense internal desire to succeed, of course, but for many it sits on the wall between "just right" and "too much."
Busch has gone over that wall many times as evidenced by his now famous in-car radio meltdowns and aggressive on-track behavior. But in 2013, the Las Vegas native has shown a shift in his ability to combat frustration.
At Darlington Raceway, where Busch started from the pole, he played a new melancholy role on the in-car radio in situations that in the past had brought him to demonstrative and damaging vitriol. He was upset and complaining, sure, but the exchanges seemed to be more of a release of frustration instead of gasoline on the fire. In the past, Busch would've compounded the problems with his anger. At Darlington, he managed a decent 14th-place finish.
His role was similar during the All-Star event in Charlotte after Busch won the race's first segment and became the only driver eligible for the $2 million payout.
Busch's natural driving talent surfaces
We've known for a long, long time that the older of NASCAR's Busch brothers could wheel a race car. His first NASCAR-sanctioned season came in 2000 in the Camping World Truck Series. Busch didn't win in his first 13 Truck races (he was a runner-up four times), but he then proceeded to take the checkered flag in his 14th and then three more times in the next 10 events.
The pattern was similar, if elongated slightly, in the Cup Series. Busch didn't win in his first full-time rookie season (2001). But by the end of his third full-time year, Busch had eight wins in NASCAR's top series. The very next year he was the sport's champion.
In the No. 78 this season, we're getting to see that Busch is on a different level talent-wise than many in the sport. Smith is no slouch of a NASCAR driver (in a part-time role with Phoenix this year, Smith has two top-ten finishes, no finish worse than 24th and two Nationwide Series wins at JR Motorsports) but Busch brought immediate improvement to the FRR team. Outside of fuel system issues at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, Busch has a legitimate chance to be one the of the top 15 drivers in the point standings.
Growth of Childress/FRR technical partnership
Busch came to FRR amid a growing relationship between that team and longtime NASCAR torchbearer Richard Childress Racing. That's essential for FRR's unique headquarters location outside of Denver. The team claims to be the only Sprint Cup team based west of the Mississippi River—which is a long way from the North Carolina roots for most competing teams.
The teams have shared a technical and engineering partnership for multiple seasons. But in January, the FRR/RCR alliance grew further when FRR's director of competition Mark McArdle doubled his duties to become the director of racing operations for RCR. Suddenly, Busch's No. 78 became a satellite fourth team to the RCR team fielding Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard.
In today's NASCAR, such partnerships are crucial for single-car operations because of the increased access to research, data collection and engineering work. For Busch, it's a key part of his resurgence to the competitive standard where he belongs.